Over 800 people attended Bank Holiday Monday’s Manchester Mayoral Assembly at the Lowry Theatre, an event to mark the inauguration of our newly formed Greater Manchester Citizens alliance.
The mayoral candidates Andy Burnham (Labour), Jane Brophy (Liberal Democrats), and Sean Anstee (Conservative), were pinned to their seats in the front row of the theatre as a conglomerate of health workers, trade unionists, local churches, mosques, synagogues, charities and schools made public and direct demands upon the leaders ahead of Thursday’s mayoral election.
Member institutions of Greater Manchester Citizens held the candidates to account on four major sticking points for the people of the Manchester region; namely, social care, housing and homelessness, hate crime, and commitment to a living wage. Manchester’s priorities and concerns are as multiple and diverse as its demographic, which is why we've spent the last few months conducting a ‘listening campaign’ to discern which areas are of the most pressing concern for the future of the city.
Individuals and groups affected by the four main issues which had consistently appeared in the listening campaign took to the stage in a face-to-face confrontation with the candidates, retelling their own experiences, and making concrete demands of the leaders. Speakers did not step down from the podium until candidates had publicly agreed (or disagreed) to their very specific asks. One example of these asks is detailed here:
‘Hate Crime Ask- We demand that you (the mayoral candidate) ensure all members of the police force are trained in recording hate crime, can differentiate between race and religious hate crime, and monitor and measure hate crime data to identify emerging trends and focus resources on the relevant areas. We also demand that you provide a victim support service that is effective and inclusive.’
Perhaps predictably, the candidates largely agreed to the ‘asks’ of the groups gathered at the assembly, with an ease that perhaps belies an underestimation of the power that Citizens has to hold them to account. What they may not have bargained for is that GM Citizens will be unrelenting in their commitment to holding Burnham, Brophy and Anstee to hold fast to what they have publicly assented to at the event.
The Assembly was chaired by the Chair of GM Citizens, Sir Peter Fahy, who said on Twitter: “This is just the start for GM branch of @CitizensUK with more community and faith groups joining to participate in local community action.”
While there was some misunderstanding about the selection process for inviting mayoral candidates, Citizens UK Director Neil Jameson clarified: “The Assembly was not a husting, an election debate or a partisan political rally. For impartial reasons we invited only three of the candidates standing in the Mayoral elections to attend; Sean Anstee, Jane Brophy and Andy Burnham. These candidates were chosen after looking at how the parties performed in recent elections at local and national level which are subject to election by voters within Greater Manchester constituencies. We also considered the odds calculated by Ladbrokes and Paddy Power which suggest these three candidates are the front runners by a clear margin. This is a strategy that Citizens UK has used in its long history of running local and national Citizens Assemblies. All the other parties and candidates were of course recognised in the programme and by the chair at the event itself. I also personally explained this position to Will Paterson, the Green Party candidate.”
Eager to shake off the misconception that the event was a husting or political rally, the organisers ensured that a family atmosphere was maintained, with several musical interludes including a performance from Manchester Harmony Gospel Choir.
Greater Manchester Citizens is the fastest formed alliance in the history of Citizens UK, which has a track record of enacting significant social change to empower individuals and communities throughout the UK. Citizens works to ‘organise communities to act together for power, social justice and the common good.’ The organisation is a diverse one and brings together people of all faiths, backgrounds and states of life, to develop their leadership skills. The idea is that, empowered to become leaders in their local communities, and by forming local ‘alliances’, ordinary people can hold politicians to account. They can work to press decision makers to work on issues that matter to them and those they meet on a daily basis.
Citizens can boast of the Living Wage, an end to detention of child refugees, and jobs for locals during the London Olympic Games as success stories orchestrated by their alliances. None of these alliances has come together so swiftly as the Manchester branch, which in nine months has gathered together the great and the good from neighbourhoods and institutions throughout the region, and organised itself effectively enough to hold the three main mayoral candidates to ransom just three days before the election, and as the final public outing of the election campaign.
The success of our alliance so far is indicative of the hard work and conviction of our first Community Organiser, Furqan Naeem, who nonetheless shares the credit with others in his typically modest fashion. “Everything we’ve achieved is testament to our local communities who all want to play a role in shaping the new Northern Powerhouse and Devolution deals. In order for democracy to work we need local people at the heart of making decisions and Greater Manchester Citizens intends to give people that recognition.”
In an emerging anti-culture of fake news, duplicitousness and dirty politics, Greater Manchester Citizens is striving to maintain democratic principles, transparency and honesty within Manchester politics. If Monday’s assembly was anything to go by, they’ve set off on the right foot.
- Lisa Burns